Brady aide Ken Smukler gets 18 months in prison, $75K fine for election law crimes

Ken Smukler outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

Ken Smukler outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY, file)

Updated: 3:43 p.m.

A federal judge has sentenced Ken Smukler, a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, to 18 months in prison and a $75,000 fine for violating federal election law.

“What you did in this case really subverts the election process,” U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois told Smukler at the end of an emotional sentencing hearing Friday. “The rules were established by Congress, and they were meant to be followed.”

In December, a jury found Smukler had helped to arrange a $90,000 payoff from Brady’s campaign fund to former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore in return for Moore’s withdrawal from a primary challenge to Brady.

Moore and two others pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in connection with the scheme. Smukler was the only one charged who went to trial.

Brady was not charged in the case because it’s not clear that offering an inducement to an opponent to quit a race violates the law.

The charges stemmed from a series of phony transactions engineered by Smukler and the other defendants to hide the purpose of the $90,000 transfer in federal campaign finance reports.

In addition to the charges associated with the 2012 Moore arrangement, Smukler was convicted of campaign finance violations in connection with his management of former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies’ unsuccessful 2014 campaign for Congress.

The jury found Smukler had spent money donated for Margolies’ anticipated general election campaign on the primary battle, a violation of federal campaign law, and had then engaged in fraudulent transactions to hide the offense.

When he addressed DuBois at his sentencing, Smukler said he took advantage of the fact that the Federal Election Commission, which is supposed to enforce campaign finance laws, does little to crack down on violations because it is gripped by partisan deadlock.

“Over the years, I’ve become well schooled on how to game the FEC and the system of rules for elections I’ve handled,” Smukler said. “It became easy to treat campaign finance law as a system to be complied with when possible, but gamed out if not.”

An emotional hearing

Smukler’s wife and two daughters gave tearful testimony about Smukler’s dedication to his family and friends, asking DuBois not to sentence him to jail.

Smukler himself wept when he spoke to DuBois.

“I have spent all my life savings. I’ve lost my house, the only one my daughters have known,” he said. “I’m toxic in the political consulting business, the only profession I have ever known.”

Smukler said the hardest part of ordeal has been the pain he’s caused his family.

“I pray no one in this courtroom has to hear the cries of their children because of something they did,” he said. “It is unbearable.”

Federal prosecutor Eric Gibson asked DuBois to impose a prison sentence of up to five years, saying candidates and political consultants need a strong message from the court about the risk of violating election laws.

“Slaps on the wrist are no deterrence to this activity,” Gibson said. “Election to public office is at stake. Power is stake. The integrity of our elections is at stake.”

DuBois said before imposing his sentence that he was impressed with the letters he’d received and the testimony he’d heard from Smukler’s friends and family, saying they were unlike any he’d ever heard in his years as as a judge.

DuBois said Smukler’s crimes represented a threat to the integrity of elections, and that a prison term was necessary to send a message to other political operatives.

But he declined to impose a sentence within the federal guidelines, which called for a four- to five-year sentence, saying he believes the guidelines are “much too harsh” for those crimes.

Both Smukler and his attorney, Brian McMonagle, declined comment after the verdict.

Smukler has been a colorful fixture of Philadelphia politics since he emerged as a young spokesman for Mayor Wilson Goode’s 1987 re-election campaign.

Since then he’s worked in many campaigns and other projects, including efforts to help former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane restore her reputation.

In recent years, Smukler was securely in the political orbit of Brady who, besides serving in Congress, has been chairman of the Democratic City Committee for more than three decades.

Brady wrote a letter to DuBois in advance of Smukler’s sentencing. That and other letters on Smukler’s behalf were sealed at the request of the defense.

Smukler will have to report to prison to begin serving his sentence June 17.

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